By Robert-Jan Bartunek
BRUSSELS, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Albert Frere, a veteran dealmaker whose impeccable business timing made him Belgium’s richest man, is stepping down as director of his holding firms GBL and Pargesa.
Through these companies, Frere, who turns 89 on Wednesday, holds stakes in some of the largest French companies, including Total, GDF Suez and Pernod Ricard.
Groupe Bruxelles Lambert and Swiss-based Pargesa said in separate statements on Monday Frere would ask shareholders not to renew his director’s mandates at the next shareholder meetings in April and May.
“At this age, he has other priorities and interests,” a spokesman for GBL said.
As a co-controlling shareholder, Frere would remain deeply attached to the group, GBL said.
His son-in-law, Ian Gallienne, had already become managing director of GBL in 2012.
Frere’s successful career started when he inherited his family business, trading in nails, and set out to acquire a string of steel businesses around his home city of Charleroi after World War Two. He left school aged 17.
Often Frere played a role as a consolidator, where he traded his large stake in a smaller company against a small stake in a larger company.
This was the case in the sale of energy company PetroFina to Total, media group RTL to Bertelsmann, or most recently in the giant cement merger between Lafarge and Holcim.
Frere made an international name for himself in the early 1980s, helping divest some of French bank Paribas’s foreign assets to investors outside France and setting up Swiss-based Pargesa with Canadian businessman Paul Desmarais who died in 2013.
Desmarais and Frere met while serving on boards of Paribas and with both of them speaking French with a local accent forged a bond, Frere said in a rare interview.
“We were the exotic touch, me with my Walloon accent and Paul with his typical Quebecois expressions,” Frere told Belgian newspaper De Tijd in 2010. “I guess the French asked themselves: ‘Who are those weirdos?'”
With Pargesa’s backing, Frere took control of GBL in 1982.
Only once was Frere’s empire looking shaky, when at the start of the 1990s GBL’s U.S. investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert, known for its employment of junk bond guru Michael Milken, collapsed.
Together with LVMH boss Bernard Arnaud, Frere also owns acclaimed French wine estate Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint-Emilion near Bordeaux.
In spite of his international success, Frere never moved far from his birth place near Charleroi. (Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and David Evans)